What’s going on in that tent?
At a time when the Boy Scouts of America is reeling from the backlash,1 and the backlash to the backlash,2 to the Supreme Court’s June 2000 ruling allowing the BSA to discriminate against gays,3 it’s worth looking at a popular Hollywood comedy from the depths of the Cold War and McCarthyism4 to see how the spectre of homosexuality has hovered over an institution celebrated in popular culture for its power to instill conservative militaristic, and nationalistic values. If the Supreme Court, or to be more precise, the five most predictably reactionary Justices, granted the BSA authority to eradicate “overt” homosexuality from its ranks, no power on earth will ever eliminate the quivering fear that somehow, somewhere, the sinful love that dare not speak its name will be committed by someone in the Boy Scouts.
As Mister Scoutmaster (1953) reveals, the complications of man-boy love arise inevitably in an organization that depends for its very existence on the contradictory celebration of male-male bonds and the suppression of male-male desire.5 At an especially hysterical moment in American history, the 1950s, when sexual outlawry became overtly linked with political outlawry, one film tried to reassure audiences that the Boy Scouts could manage to contain the threat of queerness in its ranks, making the Scouts a prop for Mom, Apple Pie, and the American Way. But using a famously queeny actor to accomplish this task of reassurance makes the film interesting to us fifty years later. In Mister Scoutmaster, one of Twentieth Century-Box’s biggest stars, character actor Clifton Webb, was lured into a pup tent with a Cub Scout and Webb’s fundamentally queer persona took on new depths of meaning. Mister Scoutmaster is a comedy that portrays a tumultuous man-boy romance within the stricter terms of normalizing the Scouts as a paramilitary organization dedicated to the national goal of winning the Cold War.
The romance plot of Mister Scoutmaster is simplicity itself: man meets boy, man has love-hate relationship with boy, man loses boy, and, in a final triumphant ending, regains and adopts boy. Whoever thought to team Webb, fresh from a hugely successful run as the acerbic baby-sitter Mr. Lynn Belvedere, with deep-voiced George “Foghorn” Winslow, the kiddie Eugene Pallette, must have been some kind of warped genius. By 1953, Fox had established both actors’ persona: the adult a fussy, supercilious and self-absorbed queen, the child a preternaturally stoic and worldly miniature adult.6 The contrast between the two actors is sublime: Webb’s mix of hauteur and slapstick is set off against Winslow’s adorable imperturbability. Especially effective is the contrast in voices: Webb’s manically pitched in the upper register, with exaggerations of words and syllables for bitchy upper-class emphasis, while Winslow delivers his lines ungrammatically with a flat, uninflected deep croak, sibilants slurring all the while.
In the film, Webb plays Robert Jordan, writer and producer of a TV show on NBC called “Spectrum,” threatened with cancellation by a network displeased with the show’s inability to attract children.7 After futile attempts to learn about children from reading a slew of crass comic books, Jordan finds himself, by accident, taking over a local scout troop in order to rub up against (metaphorically speaking, at this stage of the film) youth culture. Of course, the film presents boys as unruly little heathen, and Webb delights in dubbing them “sadistic mass murders,” “psychopathic little liar[s],” “uncouth, uncivilized little savages,” and “juvenile delinquents.” In effect, Webb throughout fulfils the traditional stereotype of gay men as contemptuous of breeders and their offspring. Even the eventual object of Webb’s devotion, Cub Scout Mike Marshall (played by Winslow), is treated to his withering putdowns of children. But the film aligns itself with Jordan’s loathing for children – except for Winslow, they are all brats or little thugs, mocking authority, shrieking, sticking their tongues out, and wreaking domestic havoc.8 Their parents fare just as badly when they fall under Webb’s sniffy disdain – the film is populated by neglectful fathers and grotesquely overbearing or scatterbrained mothers. They all need a strong hand, and Mr. Jordan is just the man to do it. He whips his troop and their parents into order in short order, objecting to the “sloppy scouting” of his predecessors, and, as he puts it, overhauling “their little keels.” Perhaps the boys and their parents are just gobsmacked into stupefied order by the exotic nature of their new scoutmaster, one who has his uniforms tailor-made (he is such a dandy), who bests them in verbal abuse (he is such a wit), and who pompously adverts to his superiority in scouting skills (and he is a surprisingly energetic and rugged outdoorsman, to boot).
Even though he is faithfully married (which is supposed to be a guarantee of his heterosexuality), Mr. Jordan fits right in to the arrested world of boys, who seem to crave the order and discipline their parents can’t provide. “I don’t like girls,” one cutely obnoxious lad opines. “Me neither, I hate ‘em,” whines another with ear-grating intensity. After initial conflict with their new supercilious scoutmaster (“Whadda stupe!,” “a real cornball”), all the boys in the troop become positively enamored with Mister Jordan. They particularly admire the way the scoutmaster gives Vernon, a sissified rich boy, his comeuppance by dumping a dish of ice cream on the lad’s head and sneering at the sissy’s hysterics when he falls into 6 inches of ditchwater on the overnight hike. In general, the film seems to endorse aggressive responses to boyish misbehavior and any behavior coded “feminine.” But Mr. Jordan is surely sublimating some kind of desire for Mike when he threatens, suggestively, at one point in the film, “This time, young man, it’s time to face the music and I’ll pipe the tune that’s going to be played on your little bottom.”
So while Mr. Jordan is away in the woods and at the scout headquarters in the church basement meting out discipline and waspish remarks to his boys, his poor wife Helen (played by an emotionally-needy but gently mocking, long-suffering Frances Dee) is left alone in their suburban Dutch Colonial home, a riot of patterned wallpaper and ruffled curtains, nursing her desperately unfulfilled maternal desires (“If only we had children of our own,” she sighs, often). In spite of the absence of the patter of little feet, the viewer is never left in doubt about the eventual fulfillment of her dreams for a happy, normal nuclear family. In this movie though, it’s formed out of an epicene husband and a working-class orphan who have cemented their bonds in her absence, in a tent on an overnighter in the dark forest, to the tune of hooting owls. In the most touching scene in the film, but one fraught with implications of pedophilia, the romantic strings on the soundtrack accompany Webb and Winslow’s closest physical intimacy – snuggled in separate sleeping bags, but with the boy nestled in the scoutmaster’s armpit and the adult’s arm wrapped around the boy. They fall asleep contentedly. After this sustained two-shot in medium close-up, fade to black.
But the movie is ever insistent on normalizing any hint of the abnormal. Since this all a comedy, of course, the film builds towards its predictable happy conclusion: the formation of a heterosexual nuclear family (Webb, Dee, and adopted son Winslow) and the televised ritual of a Boy Scouts National Court of Honor to award the Medal of Merit to young Mike for rescuing his new adoptive “father” from a hapless fall into a ravine. Mister Scoutmaster is most like an advertisement for the BSA and American national supremacy in the final shots, as Mike receives a salute from his new dad, among the audience in a flag-draped TV studio, to the insistent sounds of a military marching band. Never underestimate the power of classic Hollywood film comedy to flirt with the perverse and then attempt to reassure the viewer that the normal order is always restored. But then, as now, audiences familiar with Clifton Webb’s queer film persona (and therefore the open invitation to speculate about his real identity and private life) come away from Mister Scoutmaster wondering what unspeakable things happen in pup tents on scouting expeditions.
- Hundreds of churches, schools, corporations, charities, and local government authorities have cut or reduced their ties to the BSA since the Supreme Court decision, “Boy Scouts of America and Monmouth Council, et al., Petitioners v. James Dale.” Nine major urban scouting councils have demanded the BS Headquarters in Arlington, TX modify the organization’s exclusion policy. Nationwide membership in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Venturers declined 1.2 percent since the decision. [↩]
- The Christian Right has aggressively countered the backlash by recall and legislation, culminating in the Helms Amendment in June 2001 designed to withhold federal funds from school districts that refuse to give the BSA “equal access” to meeting space. [↩]
- That is to say, gays who are not closeted. “Openly known” homosexuals, to use George W. Bush’s charmingly imprecise phrase, are the object of the BSA’s policy of exclusion and expulsion. Justices Rehnquist, Day O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas ruled that the New Jersey Supreme Court was wrong in forcing the BSA to accept James Dale, who had declared his homosexual orientation while in college and while he was also an Assistant Scoutmaster in Matawan, NJ. [↩]
- In 1953, after nearly 3 years of hysteria over “perverts” in government, fostered by McCarthy’s henchman Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry, Eisenhower issued Executive Order IO405 explicitly excluding homosexuals from federal employment. Thousands were fired in witch hunts. [↩]
- The Boy Scouts was a product of tub-thumping British imperialism. The organization was founded in 1908 by Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941), hero of the Boer War. Less than reverent biographers, like Tim Jeal, have speculated on the degree to which the married Lord Baden-Powell was homosexually-inclined. Jeal also notes how, by the 1920s, the British Scouting movement actively suppressed public knowledge of the large numbers of pederasts in the organization, while Baden-Powell, who had a thing for watching lads swimming au naturel, countenanced the hushing up of some potentially explosive scandals. [↩]
- Webb (1891-1966) began his show biz career as a musical-comedy dancer before World War I and became an unlikely movie star, at last, in 1944 as Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura(much to the initial displeasure of homophobic studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck). The Belvedere films, which essentially transplanted a saner, but even more bitchy version of Lydecker to the suburbs, were: Sitting Pretty (1948); Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949); and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). Winslow (born 1946) is by far the most mature presence in Howard Hawks’ comedies Monkey Business (1952) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), populated as they are with perversely infantile adults. [↩]
- Mister Scoutmaster reveals, like many films of the time (All About Eve and It’s Always Fair Weather to name two), a peevish contempt for the threatening new medium of television. But, ironically, the film’s indifferent, flat black and white visuals and cramped sets are more akin to 1950s TV sitcom than 1950s cinema. The film was directed by the workmanlike Henry Levin (1909-1980), whose last film was, fatefully enough, a TV movie called Scout’s Honor, starring that famous Hollywood lost one, Gary Coleman. [↩]
- But the kids are lovable rogues and brats of the kind painted by Norman Rockwell rather than real criminals. They’re freckle-faced and cowlicked rather than dangerous and sullen. Most interestingly, two of the lads are African-American, providing viewers with the fantasy of racial integration in the BSA, at least (these two boys do not have lines to speak, however, so the fantasy only goes so far). [↩]